‘An embarrassment for QU:’ Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum’s closure sparks public outcry

Chatwan Mongkol, News Editor

After learning about her Irish heritage at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in 2013, class of 1984 alumna Kathleen Regan cut her nursing career short and decided to open an Irish gift shop. Now that the museum is closed, she said she is “angry,” “sad,” “disappointed” and “frustrated.”

“I feel like people who are making the decision are not the ones who really will be affected by it,” Regan said.

Quinnipiac’s Board of Trustees voted to shut down Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum due to financial loss and low attendance. (Connor Lawless)

The museum’s donors, supporters and former staffers spoke against Quinnipiac University’s decision to shut down the museum and called for a reopening.

The university’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in early August to permanently close Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum due to low attendance of fewer than 20 visitors per day and financial reasons as it only generated funds to cover nearly 25% of its operational budget.

Regan said the closure lacked transparency as the university did not involve the community in making the decision. She donated to the museum in May and said she still doesn’t know where her money went.

“Those of us who have been supporters, why were we not included?” Regan said. “I would like our voices to be heard.”

Associate Vice President for Public Relations John Morgan did not make anyone in the administration available for an interview.

In an open letter to Quinnipiac President Judy Olian and the Board of Trustees from the Committee to Save Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, the 33 committee members said they remain mistrustful of the reasons the university cited for the closure.

“Budgets can be cut, staff released, hours decreased; none of these possibilities even appears to have been considered,” the letter stated. “Does the stated traffic (fewer than 20 people per day) account for students and other non-paying visitors? If so, then the administration should be held accountable for not making better use of its own resources.”

Committee to Save Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum submitted an open letter to President Judy Olian and Board of Trustees in an attempt to call for a reopening. (Photo contributed by Turlough McConnell)

Francis McCarthy, a former public safety officer at Quinnipiac who was assigned to work full time at the museum since it opened in 2012, said the operation of the museum changed after Olian started her tenure. 

“The free admission arranged by (former President) John Lahey — as a learning experience for all — ended,” McCarthy said. “Admission fees were charged for adults.”

The new administration imposed a financial efficiency goal for the museum in 2019, in which the museum failed to raise funds over the last three years. It was “clearly a very difficult decision” to shut it down, Olian said at a town hall on Aug. 26.

The open letter stated that the 33 members of the museum-saving committee weren’t aware of any fundraising effort that might have taken place since 2019. They said it was “unreasonable” to count the pandemic year as a part of an “unsuccessful fundraising effort.”

Another concern was about the future of the historical collection at the museum. Morgan said the university is in “active conversations” with potential partners for relocation. However, it remains unknown if the collection will be broken up.

“Donors, including some listed (in the letter), made contributions to the whole museum based in part on its location,” the letter stated. “Relocation to New York or Chicago or elsewhere would diminish the interest value to many donors.”

Morgan said Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute and Lender Family Special Collection in Arnold Bernhard Library remain active to continue the mission of educating students and the public.

History professor and Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute Christine Kinealy said the university has lost something “unique and special nowhere else in the world had” without the museum.

“Having the institute, the museum and the library collection made us distinctive within the world,” Kinealy said. “I think it’s such a shame now to have broken that up.”

For the Irish, Kinealy said the famine is one of the foundation stories that defined them as people, and the exhibition featured artwork that told those stories. She said everyone, not just people of Irish heritage, can learn about hunger displacement from the collection.

As the museum used to host several community events such as musical concerts, lectures and food drives, McCarthy said the closure has impacted many local establishments. He said it’s sad how Quinnipiac doesn’t value what has been collected and displayed at the museum.

“This is an embarrassment for QU,” McCarthy said. “A treasure is disregarded. What a loss due to the lack of leadership on the part of the current administration.”

Kinealy said she hopes the Board of Trustees revisit the issue and reconsider its decision with consultants from the community.

Regan said she wants Quinnipiac to consider temporarily reopening it so the community gets a chance to say goodbye and enjoy the exhibition for the last time.

One of the museum’s volunteers, Mary Noonan Cortright, said staff worked “very seriously” to create a relatable experience for all visitors. Cortright said she hopes to see the museum’s mission continue, but with a different owner.

“Since Quinnipiac doesn’t seem to realize the far-reaching impact Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum has had and the asset that it is to the present and future of the university, I do hope that another university will purchase it and continue the fine work that has begun telling the human story,” Cortright said.